Israeli raid on Freedom Flotilla shatters key Turkey-Israel ties

The raid on the Turkish-led Gaza Freedom Flotilla has dealt a harsh blow to Turkey-Israel relations. Ankara's sharp response is strongest signal yet that Turkey may abandon its bid to be regional mediator.

By , Correspondent

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    Palestinians hold Turkish and Palestinian flags during a protest against the Israeli naval commando raid on a flotilla attempting to break the blockade on Gaza, in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, Tuesday.
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One of the greatest diplomatic casualties of the Israeli raid on the Turkish-led Gaza freedom flotilla, which left at least nine dead and dozens injured, may be irreversible damage to Turkey-Israel relations.

Following the flotilla raid, Turkey summoned its ambassador to Israel back to Ankara. In remarks made in parliament on Tuesday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke in harsh terms that seemed to leave little room for an easy rapprochement with Israel.

"This bloody massacre by Israel on ships that were taking humanitarian aid to Gaza deserves every kind of curse. This attack is on international law, the conscience of humanity and world peace," he said.

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IN PICTURES: The Gaza flotilla and the aftermath of the Israeli naval raid

"No one should test Turkey's patience," added Mr. Erdogan, who has grown increasingly critical of Israel since the start of the Gaza war in late 2008. "Turkey's hostility is as strong as its friendship is valuable."

Ankara’s harsh response to Israel’s action is the strongest signal yet that Turkey may be abandoning its efforts to become a regional mediator between Israel and its Muslim neighbors, favoring instead a more pointed foreign policy. The shift will allow it to capitalize on Muslim frustration with Israel, giving an added boost to its already rising profile in the Middle East.

“This mediation thing is over. Turkey now is one of the sides in the Middle East conflict. It is quite clearly opposed to Israel,” says Sami Kohen, a veteran Turkish political analyst and columnist who writes for the Milliyet daily. “This event is almost a climax in this shift.”

“Turkey’s hand in the region is strengthened now,” Mr. Kohen adds. “There is now more reason for Turkey to take a more active part in the events of the Middle East, since it has suffered personally from this attack. Now it can justify its anti-Israeli positions, which get a good deal of sympathy in the Arab and Islamic world.”

New complexities for US alliance

Ankara's shift complicates a historic alliance between Turkey and the US, which has become more important in recent years. An air base in southern Turkey is one of the most important transit bases for ferrying troops and supplies to Afghanistan. Turkish mediation, meanwhile, had gotten Israel and Syria back to the peace table until that effort was aborted when the Gaza war broke out.

Increased tension between Turkey and Israel clouds one of the few sunny spots the US had previously enjoyed in the region.

The deterioration in the once-close relationship between Turkey and Israel has been mirrored by an equally precipitous rise in Turkey’s visibility and involvement in the Middle East, an area that it had kept at arm’s length for decades because of historical enmity and mutual suspicion.

After coming to power in 2002, the government of the liberal Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) worked to forge close relations with neighbors such as Syria and Iran.

“It’s [an AKP] project whose goal is to set up Turkey as an international player, on the one hand, and to get recognition of Turkey as a moderate, market-friendly leader in the Muslim world and be treated as such in international bodies,” says Anat Lapidot-Firilla, senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.

“The significance of this is that we are going to see more and more Turkish pressure to be involved in regional affairs and global affairs. They are raising the level of their requests and their global aspirations.”

A 'juddering halt' to mediation efforts

Until recently, Turkey’s growing involvement in the Middle East included a desire to parlay its good relations with both Israel and the Arab states into a role as a regional mediator. Ankara, for example, hosted Israel and Syria for a round of (ultimately failed) secret peace talks in 2008.

But for now, analysts say, Turkey appears to have abandoned its mediation efforts in the region in return for a more pronounced leadership role in the Middle East.

“For the time being, I don’t see any kind of opening for the peace process. So if there isn’t any peace process, there isn’t any need for the good offices of a mediator,” says Gencer Ozcan, an expert on Turkey-Israel relations at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.

Andrew Finkel, a columnist with the English-language daily Today’s Zaman, says that Turkey’s declared policy of “zero problems with neighbors” – which has led Ankara to make groundbreaking moves in its relations with Armenia and Cyprus, for example – has come to a “juddering halt” in the case of Israel.

“Instead, Ankara appears to have given its tacit consent to another policy of sharpening contradictions, of trying to lance the boil instead of putting soothing ointment on the blister,” he says.

“Turkey has always avoided the trap of being in the anti-Israel camp. Also, its relations with Israel have always been an acid test of Turkey being neither fish nor fowl, not being part of the East or the West, that it’s not part of an ideological anti-Israel camp,” Mr. Finkel adds. “One of Turkey’s credentials has been that it’s had good relations with Israel and that those relations have paid good dividends in the past.”

In previous years, for example, Turkey's close relations with Israel helped it gain access to the halls of power in Washington and to deal with regional intelligence and security issues.

Why Palestinians urged Turkey to keep talking to Israel

But while Turkey may now earn short-term gains from distancing itself from Israel, there are concerns about the long-term effect of a serious breach between the two countries might have on an already conflict-ridden region.

“Turkey has gradually been losing one of the most significant leverages that it was using in the Arab world,” says Ozcan. “Even the Palestinians were telling Ankara to keep talking to the Israelis.”

IN PICTURES: The Gaza flotilla and the aftermath of the Israeli naval raid

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